J.J. Lewis, CEO and superintendent of Compass Charter Schools, tells the Berkeley School Board on April 10 he’s eager to pursue a merger with REALM. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
J.J. Lewis, CEO and superintendent of Compass Charter Schools, tells the Berkeley School Board on April 10 he’s eager to pursue a merger with REALM. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The Berkeley School Board is set to vote next Wednesday on a merger between REALM Charter School and Southern California online-learning network Compass Charter Schools.

The board considered the matter earlier this month, too, during a nearly three-hour discussion. But the officials put off the vote, saying they said they needed more information about the virtual charter school.

“Board members were Googling, ‘Who is Compass?’” said Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, one of multiple officials who criticized the charter schools for providing thin or last-minute information in their application for a material revision of REALM’s charter. California’s education code requires schools to give “reasonably comprehensive” descriptions of their programs.

“One of my reservations is because of lack of familiarity with Compass,” added board member Julie Sinai. “I know nothing about the charter school. I’ve never heard of you before, you’re online, you don’t do project-based learning.”

At the same May 8 meeting, students and staff from REALM told the board that the merger is the only thing that can save their beloved project-based learning program. REALM’s community has weathered year after year of financial distress and uncertainty, and the school could lose its charter in a matter of weeks. Compass has promised to take on REALM’s significant debt after the merger and keep the two brick-and-mortar Berkeley schools intact.

So what is Compass Charter Schools, and why is the financial burden of merging with REALM worth it for the nonprofit?

Compass chartered in small, rural districts

Compass, launched under the name Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012, has a history of expanding rapidly, often seeking charters from small, financially strapped school districts and in one case facing a legal challenge. But the network’s relatively new CEO, J.J. Lewis, says he’s put Compass on a completely new path, consolidating its charters and refocusing on its students.

Compass serves students, or “scholars” in the charter school’s parlance, in grades K-12. Students each spend about one hour a week in a virtual classroom, interacting with classmates and a teacher, said Lewis, and the rest of the week working on their own assignments.

“It is an independent study program,” said Lewis in a phone interview Thursday. “What we’ve done is added in more resources and support,” like a counseling program, in-person outings and family town halls. All Compass teachers appear to have Twitter accounts, and many use them to rave about the school system and post pictures of smiling students on field trips.

REALM’s middle school moved this year to the Pacific School of Religion, after illegally opening a temporary location outside of the county. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
REALM’s middle school moved this year to the Pacific School of Religion, after illegally opening a temporary location outside of the county. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The schools attract a range of attendees, from high-achieving students who want to take community college courses simultaneously, to others who are credit-deficient and might later return to traditional schools, and child actors or other families that need “flexibility,” Lewis said.

Compass currently operates three virtual programs, in Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego counties, with headquarters in Thousand Oaks. Last month the Winters Joint Unified school district authorized Compass to operate in Yolo County too.

The network is also attempting to merge with Millennium Charter School in Monterey County. There is a notable parallel circumstance there with Berkeley: a troubled school facing revocation sees the merger as its only way out.

Compass is not chartered with any of the prominent school districts in the counties where it currently operates. Instead, in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, it is among the many charters, including other virtual schools, authorized by two small, semi-rural districts, Acton-Aqua Dulce in Los Angeles County and Mountain Empire in San Diego County. Such set-ups have been criticized by public school advocates, who see tiny districts eager to get paid charter oversight fees but which lack the resources to provide true supervision — and charter schools interested in gaining easy authorization with minimal oversight.

The behavior of one of Compass’ authorizing districts prompted state legislation aiming to limit charter expansion in California.

Acton-Agua Dulce’s aggressive approval of new charters — including the Academy of Arts and Sciences — helped set the stage for Assembly Bill 1507, which would prohibit charter schools from opening facilities outside of their authorizing districts. The Los Angeles County district had lost about half of its small student body, and consequently significant state funding, over the course of decade, according to CALmatters, until it decided to authorize around two dozen charter schools and collect oversight fees. Those fees amounted to nearly $2 million a year. Taking advantage of a state law, the newly authorized charters were able to open up schools outside of the Acton-Agua Dulce boundaries, to the chagrin of some of the districts where they decided to operate.

In Fresno, Compass is authorized by Orange Center School District, which serves just over 300 students in preschool through eighth grade. The Orange Center principal/superintendent did not respond to requests for an interview.

All the current Compass charters, except the new one in Winters, predate Lewis’ tenure.

Lewis has run Compass since early 2017 and was previously interim CEO and superintendent for just over a year. Lewis succeeded Sean McManus, a controversial figure accused of skirting charters regulations. Around 2015, Los Angeles Unified sued the Academy of Arts and Sciences for failing to provide mandatory notice to the district of its intent to open schools inside its boundaries. The case was reportedly settled, and McManus had to close three schools.

When Lewis came in, he changed the nonprofit’s name to Compass and consolidated its 10 active charters into five. Two of those, through Cotati-Rohnert Park and Mupu districts, were subsequently not renewed. School board members from those two districts did not respond to questions by publication time.

“While it is true that we have our beginnings as [the Academy of Arts and Sciences], we have truly transformed and risen from the ashes,” said Lewis. He said he selected the phoenix as Compass’ new mascot for a reason.

“There’s an entirely new leadership team and new board of directors. We’re really not any part of the past. We are active members of the public charter school community, ensuring scholars have access to a quality charter experience.”

Compass has insisted it will keep REALM’s physical schools up and running if the merger goes through. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Compass has insisted it will keep REALM’s physical schools up and running if the merger goes through. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Lewis has a master’s degree in educational leadership from San Diego State University and is pursuing a doctorate in organizational change and leadership from the University of Southern California. Before working at Compass, he was the manager of major giving for Detroit Public Television in Michigan. Lewis, who attended traditional public schools as a child in the Midwest, said he grew up wanting to become a teacher and did some substitute teaching in college.

What will happen to REALM if the merger is approved?

Merging with REALM would allow Compass to operate not just in Berkeley but in counties adjacent to Alameda County as well. Lewis has been upfront about the appeal of that rule — and has indicated that Compass feels an urgency to expand, as laws restricting charter growth loom in the state legislature.

If the merger goes through, only a classroom-based charter would be authorized through BUSD. That would limit the number of students taking the online program to 20%.

Some board members have questioned why Compass would be motivated to keep REALM’s two physical schools open after a merger.

Lewis has repeatedly tried to reassure skeptics, saying Compass has no intention of touching REALM’s program. And if he did, Compass would have to seek a material revision from Berkeley’s school board. However, current California law is often seen as favorable to charter schools in those cases.

“Our interest is in quality education,” Lewis told Berkeleyside. “We saw an opportunity with REALM to branch out into other charter school types. While it has some fiscal and operational struggles, it has a good educational program. I’m a big believer in school choice.”

REALM’s curriculum — which School Board members often say they respect — focuses on hands-on learning and problem-solving, with students building their own school library and producing podcasts.

The rest of Compass’ schools don’t have hands-on instruction. Instead, it is virtual. Compass uses the StrongMind curriculum in grades 6-12 and K12 for elementary school.

Both curriculum companies have their critics.

The creator of StrongMind, Damian Creamer, owns both the curriculum company and a for-profit school system in Arizona, Primavera, where he uses the curriculum. Such an arrangement would be illegal for the state’s district schools. Creamer has been criticized for paying himself millions of dollars while the schools have questionable academic outcomes and high drop-out rates.

Virginia-based K12 Inc., which operates for-profit schools as well, was sued by the state of California, which alleged that the company inflated attendance records and misled the public and nonprofit partners. The case ended in a $168.5 million settlement in 2016. The company has announced that it is shifting to career-preparation programs.

Lewis said Compass has vetted the curricula and made sure they meet state standards.

“The curriculum is engaging, the curriculum is rigorous,” he said. But “the Compass experience is different than that of other schools, including Primavera. The instructional techniques are different.” He said Compass might establish a committee to regularly review the curriculum.

REALM’s teaching staff has been a point of interest in the conversations about the school’s future. Somewhat unusually for a charter school, REALM’s teachers are all part of the local union — while none of Compass’ online teachers are unionized.

Lewis has said Compass will honor a Berkeley Federation of Teachers contract at REALM’s two schools. Board members said language in previous Compass documents did not inspire confidence that the network understood its legal obligation to recognize unions that teachers form.

BFT President Cathy Campbell said her union does not have a position on the merger and is seeking some commitments from Compass about conditions next year. The entities can’t formally negotiate before a merger.

“This affects black and brown children”

REALM teachers came to a May 8 School Board meeting to support the merger.

“If you think you’ve been frustrated by REALM’s financial mismanagement, try working for it,” said Ryan Tong. He said REALM is worth saving: “I’ve had the pleasure of teaching AP U.S. History where 97% of my kids are kids of color — can Berkeley High say the same? Put this train-wreck on new tracks, with a shiny new engine. Compass is providing you with a way out.”

On May 22, the Berkeley School Board will have the final say on whether REALM can merge with Compass. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Tong was joined by several students, who one after another said REALM was a “safe space” for them.

“The kids at REALM just really do have a different experience than they would at a different school,” said senior Daniel Herrera, a Richmond resident. “We don’t really come from quiet neighborhoods like the one in Berkeley. See it from the point of view of the students and not just the financial issues.”

REALM Executive Director Victor Diaz said the merger could put the school in a position to attract more Berkeley families too, and become “part of the whole offering” for local families like it was in the early years.

Board member Ka’Dijah Brown seemed most prepared to support the merger.

“The reality of the decision right now is this affects black and brown children,” she said. “This affects children who look like me, who look like Beatriz, who look like Dr. Evans” (referring to Leyva-Cutler and BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans).

Board approval is not all the merger is contingent on. Compass has said REALM needs to reduce its $1.5 million debt by 30% by the fall or it could walk away from the plan. Both charter schools are trying to negotiate with the companies to which REALM is indebted.

Compass ended 2017 — according to the most recent available tax records — with a bit over $5 million in net assets. There have been significant fluctuations in the nonprofit’s revenue and expenses over the past several years, records show, but the ups and downs were likely due to the rapid expansion under McManus and consolidation under Lewis, the CEO said.

Lewis was paid $143,576 in 2017, while McManus at one point made close to $214,000.

Someone from the Berkeley area will be added to Compass’ board, which meets virtually, if the schools merge.

Diaz’s future with REALM, should the merger go through, is unclear.

“I want to see the success of this program,” said Diaz, when that question was raised by the board. “I’d like to see it have way fewer headaches than it has over the years.”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...